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Spiritual Discernment

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“Spiritual Discernment”

1 John 4.1-6

 “Aren’t there more important things to do in this world than argue over doctrine?” “Why can’t we all just follow Jesus and get along?” “So what if his life isn’t perfect? He says he loves Jesus. Isn’t that enough?” “I picked up her book from the ‘Christian’ section at Chapters.”

Perhaps you’ve heard these questions or asked them yourself. There is certainly within many of us an intense desire to work together for the cause of Jesus Christ. And I’ll admit sometimes the fight for sound doctrine can be tiring. It takes a lot of energy and focus to fight. There is also a strong temptation to please people around you. And yet as we are diligent in our study of God’s Word, we see that there is little option for the Christian but to stand firm on what we believe and what it is we are to proclaim.

I have seen quite prominently in “Christian” publishing that there is also strong temptation to introduce new teachings when it comes to God and the Bible. It is also apparent that such things sell quite nicely. The problem here is that there is either little concern from those promoting these doctrines or that there is little discernment in so doing. It has been said that we are one of the most biblically illiterate generations in history. THAT is a sobering thought! I believe that this is largely attributed to a couple of reasons. I think that we have many other things that compete for our time. We have an unprecedented amount of distraction. And what I’ve noticed is that it is much easier for us to entertain ourselves than to dig into God’s Word, memorize Scripture, and apply it. But this is precisely what we must be doing!  

As we know, the book of 1 John is purposed to demonstrate the difference between the Christian and the one who merely claims to be. Through a series of tests, John is attempting to expose the false teachers and encourage those who remain faithful to Christ. This passage today will include a doctrinal test, a practical test, and an exhortation for a response from John’s readers.

A. W. Tozer once said that, “What comes into your mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” In other words, it is only as we have an accurate understanding of God, will we know how to have a relationship with him and to honor him. This theme certainly emerges from our text this morning. Please turn in your Bibles to 1 John 4.1-6. READ.

In many ways, our passage this morning parallels 1 John 2.18-28 where John writes regarding the Antichrist and how presently there antichrists in the world. In that passage, John sets out to help identify what signifies the one who truly believes in Jesus Christ and the one who is “antichrist.” Our passage this morning involves a couple of tests as well.

Our first point is Confessing the Truth. John begins with a strong prohibition, in verse 1, indicating that his readers should not believe every spirit. Rather, they are to test the spirits to see if they are truly from God or are merely false prophets. Even out of the gate, John will make the strong point that the messages that are proclaimed are spiritual in nature. In other words, if we recall that a person is either for Jesus or against Jesus, we can also conclude that it is either the Spirit of God or the spirit of antichrist that is behind the messages.

John says that many false prophets have gone out into the world. In chapter 2, he says that many antichrists have come. Our grasping this truth alone should prompt us to diligence in the Word of God. In Old Testament times, the nation of Israel was given criteria for which to discern true and false prophets. And if the prophet was determined to be false, they were to put that one to death because of the extreme danger of leading the people astray. In Deuteronomy 13.1-6, “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known.” You can also find this in Deuteronomy 18.15ff. This is a serious issue that needed to be addressed - and continues to be so even today.

 This situation is particularly dangerous because such prophets “appear” or “proclaim” to be sent from God. However, what is evident is that one should not receive every prophetic pronouncement as true just because there is a claim to divine authority. Spiritual activity is not necessarily godly activity.

Jesus himself brought this to our attention. Matthew 7:15 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Matthew 24:11 “11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. Matthew 24:24 “24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” Mark 13:21–23 “21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.” And how about Paul in the book of Acts? Acts 20:28–30 “28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Peter speaks of these in his second letter. And we saw recently that Jude also speaks of those who had “crept in unnoticed” in the midst of the believers.” 

So, with this reality, John commands his readers to not believer every spirit. Don’t believe everything that you hear. The tense of the verb here suggests that the readers were presently believing things they shouldn’t be. And John tells them to stop doing so. Rather… but… “test” the spirits. The word for test is “dokimazo” and was used to refer to a metallurgist’s assessment of metals to test their purity and value. Don’t fall for spiritual “fool’s gold.” All that glitters isn’t gold. Look at it. Assess it. Feel it. Don’t just accept anything or anyone. Test the spirits. Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:20–22 “20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.”

Verses 2 and 3 tell us what we’re testing for. “By this… you know… the Spirit of God.” Ready? Here is the litmus test. “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” In all of our dealings with people, we’ve got to get Jesus right!

Here we have content and confession. The content is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God incarnate. Upon this truth the Christian faith stands or falls. The actuality of the incarnation is not secondary or optional. It is essential! John 1:14 “14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Philippians 2 tells us that he was born in the likeness of man. 1 Timothy 3:16 “16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

However, John isn’t just suggesting that as long as you believe that Jesus was born as a man, you are from God. Everything else we know of Jesus is contingent on this great truth. Remember, in 1 John 2.2, John indicates that the antichrist denies Jesus as the Christ (or the Messiah sent by God). In 4.2, it is that Jesus has come in the flesh. In 4.15 it is those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God who are indwelt by God. In 5.1 it is those who believe that Jesus is the Christ that are born of God. In 5.5 it is again those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God who overcame the world.

What we need to understand is the entire life and ministry of Jesus Christ. We go nowhere if we don’t embrace the incarnation – that God came in the flesh in the Person of Jesus. As we look through the Bible, it becomes exceedingly clear that only the sacrifice of a perfect, sinless Lamb is able to take away sins of all time. It had to be God that would be our provision. He had to come in the flesh and live a sinless life. And then he had to die a substitutionary death for our sins.

True Christians confess that Jesus came in the flesh and died in their place for their sins. This is truth that we confess. To “confess” denotes not mere verbal acknowledgement but an open and forthright declaration of the message as one’s own position. It is an outward expression of an inner faith. Satan and his demons get the facts right. They just don’t submit to it.

What we confess regarding Jesus is crucial. John says that it confirms your relationship to God. It is evidence of the Spirit of God residing within the believer. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.’” To confess Christ in this way confirms that you are his child.

Verse 3 presents the contrast. Every spirit that does not make this confession shows that its origin is not in God the Father. To deny the incarnation is to deny Jesus. Because these defectors refuse to confess the truth about him, they reveal their identity as false teachers. John has already said in 1 John 2:22 “22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.” The aim of the spirit of antichrist is to deceive people by denying the truth about Jesus. 

I hope that you can see the reality in which we find ourselves. What was true then, is true now. John clearly points out that his readers are surrounded… permeated… with false prophets and antichrists whose desire and purpose is to lead astray the believers in Jesus Christ. They are intentional and deceptive. They can “look the part” – to an extent. They can say many true things – and yet manipulate and distort. They can claim divine authority – and influence the undiscerning. These words should have startled his readers a bit. I believe that he is trying to press home this reality.

My friends, the situation remains the same in our day. False prophets imitate their father, the devil. Remember the first words recorded of him in the book of Genesis? The devil takes the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Do you remember how he deceived Adam and Eve? He used a few of God’s words and then he added some and twisted some. The same is true of the false teachers in our day. They will ask questions in like manner. “Did God really say… that Jesus is the only way? Is there really a place called hell that involves eternal torment? Would a God of love send anyone there? Or maybe his great love will win and all will be saved anyway?”

We have people that come knocking on our door and say that they too are “Christians.” They will intentionally use the same terminology that we use. They want us to think that we believe essentially the same thing. And then questions like “Does the Bible really speak of the trinity? Is Jesus God or just his first creation?” What we know about Jesus is crucial so that we are not led astray by false religions and their prophets!! Don’t be deceived. Be diligent! Test the spirits! Many false prophets have gone out into the world! And the Enemy is using them to lead astray, if possible, even the elect! That’s you! – if you have trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation. Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God or from the Enemy. It’s one or the other!

So now that I’ve got your attention… what hope is there? What defenses, what assurances do we have when there are many false prophets? And they are targeting us? Our second point is Overcoming with Truth.

In verse 1, John began with beloved – still showing his pastoral concern for his readers. In verse 4, he begins with little children yet again. He is concerned for them. And with his address, he desires to comfort them. John says, “Little children… you… are from God… and have overcome them.” When he says “you”, it is emphatic in the original. John sets up a strong contrast between his readers and the false teachers (spirit of antichrist).

Those who have correctly “confessed” Jesus Christ as the Son of God sent as the Messiah to die for the sins of his people… you are from God!! … and have overcome them! This is a perfect tense verb which indicates that the victory is more than a passing phase. It is decisive and continuing. For the child of God will persevere and hold true to the confession. He will not be led astray by false teachers. He has overcome them! Why? What is the basis for this victory?

John continues and says “for” he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world! Wow! For the Christian, he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. Who’s the “he”? John doesn’t say specifically here but look down a few verses. In verses 13-15 which we will look at next week, he says “13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”

Paul presents us with which Person of the godhead even more specifically. 1 Corinthians 2:12 “12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 “19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Can you get your head around that? If you are a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within you!! The Holy Spirit is equal in all his attributes as the other members of the trinity. And he resides within you and grants you the power to overcome the Enemy and his false prophets.

Satan is the “he who is in the world.” John will say in chapter 5.19 that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. Ephesians 2:2 “2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— John 12:31 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. Satan is a powerful and formidable foe. But what great assurance we have as Christians to know that residing within us is the very Creator of all things. John 3:31 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.  

As believers yield themselves to the one who lives within them, they experience continual victory in their daily battles with the forces of evil. This is a great promise that provides great comfort, assurance, and hope. One commentator notes, “the spiritual security of his readers depended ultimately upon God’s work within them by his Spirit, and that there is no power greater than the Spirit of God that would be able to destroy that work. In the present day and age also, our own spiritual security depends on the Spirit of God and his work within us, and this is a firm basis of Christian assurance.” Our response should be the same as Paul in Romans 8:31 “31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

 Then John reverts back to the “them”. And in these next two verses he will demonstrate another way to discern who is of God and who is of the Enemy. John has used the word “kosmos” frequently in the negative throughout his letter. He often refers to the evil system under its evil ruler. Satan is the ruler in the “world”. His followers are from “the world”. So it shouldn’t surprise us when the message that they deliver sounds “wordly”. In turn, the “world” listens to them. It’s a closed system. The world listens to the message that comes from the world because the world is under the reign of the prince of this world. Everybody is speaking the same language here.

But there are clear distinctions between the world and the children of God. And it plays out very significantly. John 15:19 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

John says in verse 6, we are from God. And whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. You see, this will play out practically as well. It is not crystal clear who the “we” and “us” are in this verse. Some suggest that it refers to John and the other apostles because they speak with inspired divine authority. Others indicate that it is all believers that he has in mind. Within the context, I am inclined toward the latter  understanding because he has just stated that all believers are “from God” in verse 4 and all believers have “one who is greater” residing within them.  And I believe the thought here to be this: True believers in Jesus will continue to declare God’s truth. Other believers listen and respond to this truth and the world does not.

This is reinforced in John 8:47 “47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” John 10:16 “16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Recall also the interchange between Jesus and Pilate just before his crucifixion. John 18:37 “37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

The way that this plays out is that those who correctly confess that Jesus is the Christ will maintain that conviction because they have the Holy Spirit of God residing within them. They will not fall prey to the false prophets because they continue to hear the truth of the Word of God and they continue to apply this Word and be transformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ. This will be evidence of their family relationship with the Father.

Those who are not “from God” will not persevere because they are from the world and the world’s message appeals to them. They will not listen to us. It is only those who are “from God” who will listen to truth. By this… we will know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. There are not multiple truths. There are not multiple ways to God. There is the truth that the Holy Spirit impresses upon us. And he testifies to Christ. Jesus told this to his disciples in John 15:26. 26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. John 16:13 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

So, I think there are cautions in this significant passage. The first is in our confession. Have we embraced a sound understanding of who Jesus Christ is? Or do we have some self-fabricated image that we look to? Is what we understand of him biblical? I hope that you now recognize its importance. A most significant question that Jesus asked his disciples and asks each one of us is, “who do you say that I am?” I’ve heard and read a lot of different answers to that question. And many have been way off. Jesus Christ is the very Son of God, sent to heaven because of the love of the Father in order to be a substitute sacrifice for the sins that we committed. He is now the risen Lord who reigns and awaits his return in judgment and to claim his followers for eternity. What do you confess??

Do you hear and respond to the Word of God? If you continue to embrace the message of the world, perhaps you need to do a re-assessment. The child of God listens not to the world but to the truth of his Word. The Christian obeys what is learned and grows in his or her faith.

Beloved Christian, take comfort. Though many prophets have gone out into the world, the Holy Spirit resides within you so that you have overcome the Evil One. Persevere in his strength, listen to his voice through the truth of God’s Word. Grow in your walk of faith as you yield to the power of this Spirit within you. Rely not on your own strength, but on he who is in you. For he is very God himself. Let’s pray.


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